The Question of Narrative


Tom Cutterham is a postdoctoral researcher at New College, part of the University of Oxford, where he teaches colonial, revolutionary, and nineteenth-century American history. He finished his doctorate at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, with the help of a postgraduate fellowship at the Rothermere American Institute.

Should historians embrace the art of narrative, or treat it with more suspicion? In his review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton back in July, USIH’s Kurt Newman argued that “the book-length narrative” is not “the proper form for the presentation of a historical argument.” Narrative, he wrote, involves too much selection, too many authorial choices hidden from the reader. “Most importantly,” Newman suggested, “constructing a narrative is almost always tied up with some telos or end,” a teleology that serves as expression or conduit of ideology, pulling us towards the outcome we imagine fits. Narrative, in other words, is something more than reasoned argument. It enlists desire to shape the way we think.

For the rest of the week here at The Junto, we’ll be holding a round-table event on narrative in historiography, and we invite you to join in in the comments. What makes something a “book-length narrative,” or what distinguishes narrative history from any other kind? Are there alternatives to narrative that we should be adopting? How does narrative work—or fail—in journal articles and other non-book forms? We would love to hear about your favourite examples of narrative and non-narrative historiography. We’ll be sharing some of our own this week too.

Personally, I’m a fan of narrative. That’s because I think historiography is just as much an art as a science. We have standards of fidelity to the evidence that mark the boundaries of our discipline. Uncovering new evidence, or finding new ways to employ it, are exciting parts of what we do. But presenting and interpreting that evidence is at least as important. As Hayden White discussed over forty years ago in Metahistory, however we choose to do that involves some sort of emplotment, and therefore some element of ideology. To note every omission, to justify every authorial choice, would be to write a book that encompassed the universe—a truly Borgesian feat. The art of history, instead, is to shape those choices and omissions for effect. ...

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